Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Sometimes I feel like my sermons are about all the scriptures around the reading as much as they are about the specific scripture that is our reading for the day. Lucky for you, today is one of those days. You may be pretty familiar with the idea of Jesus as a shepherd. It’s one of the most recognizable ways that that he is described in Christian tradition. When Cyndi and I were looking for art work for this Sunday’s bulletin, we had a multitude of choices for Jesus as Shepherd. That is not true of every scripture.
So, what does the story before today’s reading tell us about how Jesus was a shepherd? I am grateful for the work of scholar Osvaldo Vena who pointed back to this healing story in chapter 9 to clarify the shepherd discourse in chapter 10. Dr. Vena notes that at the beginning of chapter 10, when Jesus says “Very truly, I tell you...”, the you is not a general you... an “all y’all who are listening”... but a specific “you,” that is, “you, the Pharisees who have been a part of the debacle around the healing.” I call this healing a debacle not because of what Jesus did or what the person who was healed did, but how the community leaders respond when they see that the man is healed.
The short version of chapter 9 is that Jesus healed someone outside the bounds of the community’s traditions around healing. The leaders of the community are suspicious of Jesus’ power, which is fair. The leaders couldn’t agree with one another about Jesus’ actions: some thought them wrong because he healed on the Sabbath, which was a kind of work that people were asked to refrain from, and some thought him right because healing is a sign of God and acts of mercy were allowed on the Sabbath. They questioned the man and his parents about how Jesus healed him. The three all say they don’t know. The man who was healed said that it would seem obvious to him that Jesus was sent by God based on the good he did. So, even if he didn’t understand it, he knew it was holy.
Well, as we all know, embarrassed powerful people can be mean. The leaders resented being lectured by a random guy with no education and no money. So, they kick the guy out of town! This poor guy... having a great day because he can see for the first time in his life and people are so suspicious of the miracle that they’d rather get rid of him than learn from it. Jesus then goes to find him and welcome him into the fold as a disciple. As he welcomes the man who had been discarded, Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). The Pharisees who are close enough to hear this statement say “Surely we are not blind, are we?” The Shepherd discourse is the response to the Pharisees who wondered if they had made a mistake.
In Chapter 10, Jesus uses the metaphor of the shepherd to explain how he will use his power. He used metaphors they’d understand. Jesus said that he was both the gate and the shepherd, letting people into beloved community and laying down his life to protect his fold. Our reading today is his description of what it means to be a “good shepherd.” In his commentary on this text, Dr. Obery Hendricks Jr. points out several other places in the Hebrew Bible that call upon the image of Shepherd as someone good and holy. For the Pharisees, who knew their scripture well, they might have understood Jesus to be invoking those scriptures to explain his own mission. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, Jesus was offering the man he healed access to good pasture, safe paths, and cool water. Like the shepherd in Ezekiel (34:1-10), Jesus sought out the lost and wounded sheep. Like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:10-11, Jesus comforts and heals his sheep. When asked to explain himself, this is what he says: I offer comfort, safe passage, and healing. “I am the Good Shepherd. I am more than a hired hand. I will call out to his sheep and they will know me. I will lay down my life to save them.”
As I read over this scripture, I remembered something I read about the Shepherd imagery in John. I think it was in Karoline Lewis’ book about John. She said that if you pay attention, Jesus acts like a shepherd through the whole book. In chapter 10, he says that the shepherd will call out the sheep’s names, identifying them as his own. In the stories recounting the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ own resurrection, Jesus called out to Lazarus and called out to Mary Magdalene to claim them as his own. In fact, he found each of his first sheep, his disciples, and called them to ministry alongside him. He also kept his sheep safe at the time of his arrest, giving himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. Remember, a good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people.
In another commentary on this text, Karoline Lewis also notes that Jesus seems to be training up apprentice shepherds... that is, the sheep can also shepherd the rest of the flock. Several chapters after today’s reading, in the days after the resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter he, too, needed to be a shepherd. In John 21, Jesus says, "Simon (that's one of Peter's names), do you love me more than these?" Peter said of course he loved him. Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." Jesus then told him, "Tend to my sheep." And, a third time, Jesus said, "Feed my sheep." Jesus was not the only shepherd, Lewis argues. His followers may shepherd, too.
In her commentary on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney points out this fascinating bit about “the sheep who do not belong to this fold,” but are nevertheless Christ’s. Who is this other flock that we don’t know? I mean, I can think of people who aren’t always welcomed in the flocks I’ve been a part of: unhoused people who don’t have regular access to showers or medication, people who aren’t white, people who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction, people who have been hurt by the church, people who have been in prison. Thank God this scripture reminds us that we aren’t the only ones claimed by Jesus. There’s this whole other flock! Shoot, maybe we’re the other flock, waiting to be called by Christ and joined into one body with all his beloved sheep. Perhaps this is our question to consider for the following week. How can we live in a way that is open to Jesus calling us to follow him and also open to all the people, the ones we know and the ones we don’t know, who Jesus is also calling along the way. May we learn to be one flock, made stronger by our differences and made whole by Jesus’ call on our lives.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-being-the-good-shepherd
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-4
Wil Gafney, "Proper 14 (Closest to August 10)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Obery M. Hendricks, "John," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.